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How We Built The Big Know Pt. I

How We Built The Big Know Pt. I

This month, we launched a new start-up: The Big Know.

As the name implies, we’re not thinking small when it comes to this new opportunity. In fact, we believe we’re introducing a new concept to the worlds of learning and brand marketing.

The Big Know is creating a new category of marketing we call Brand As Teacher.

We’re creating massively open online courses taught not by universities and professors, but by the world’s brightest brands and the experts they employ.

Although we have just launched, this is a concept nearly two years in the making. And the journey to this point is worth sharing both as an example of the start-up process, but also as validation of why we’re so excited about the potential of this business.

Background: Two Converging Trends

In the summer of 2013, I became obsessed with two unrelated trends that I believed could converge to incredible effect.

First, in the world of higher education, the industry was abuzz about massively open online courses. The New York Times had declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC.”

Tens of millions of venture capital dollars were flowing into Coursera and Udacity, and millions of people around the world were registering for free courses on topics ranging from Artificial Intelligence to Philosophy.

While skeptical of the sustainability of the business model, I had no doubt that universities had discovered something that consumers really loved: inexpensive (usually free) courses taught by top experts from medallion universities.

Second, in the world of business, marketers were continuing to shift dollars to content marketing at an astounding clip. By the end of 2012, nearly ⅓ of all marketing dollars were going to content marketing (which covers everything from blogs to events to videos).

According to some estimates, that’s nearly $40 billion in spending on a category that the majority of marketers admit they’re still trying to figure out. Their biggest challenge? Creating truly engaging content with sustainable value.

Both trends are still gaining momentum today.

On one side you have millions of people signing up for online courses taught by top experts while on the other side you have the world’s most beloved brands trying to come up with content that will really engage people. Where the two intersect is the opportunity we became so excited about.

We set out to create a platform for delivering MOOCS, not taught by universities, but by the world’s top companies.


Step 1: Concept Validation

Sometimes good ideas are actually bad ideas disguised by passionate people and prose. I’ve experienced both. So before taking any major steps, I wanted to vet this idea with marketing leaders and top businesses.

Fortunately, our hometown of Minneapolis has an abundance of Fortune 500 companies (Target, General Mills, Best Buy, 3M to name a few) so I had dozens of coffees, lunches and beers with some top marketing leaders in order to get some initial feedback.

My observations and hypotheses were validated by the reaction I received.  This was not a crazy idea. But neither was it simple. One key concern raised was whether consumers would consider taking courses from non-academic sources. Would anyone show up and would the courses meet their needs? In other words, what motivates the average course-taker?


Step 2: Research

After pitching the concept to my partners at GoKart Labs, The Big Know cleared our first stage-gate and was allocated some funding to further define the concept and answer the questions above.

As a first step, we hired a researcher and journalist to dig into all available research on MOOCs and to interview experts in the field. Why were people taking these courses? What had the providers learned in terms of effectiveness and motivation? Where was this all going?

The investigation resulted in a 30-page written report that proved fruitful for the development of The Big Know. We learned everything from completion rates (abysmal) to satisfaction levels (quite high by university standards). We also learned about content engagement rates and student motivation.

The most revealing insight to me was this: while on average less than 10% of people complete a massively open online course, some 90% of those who don’t complete still feel satisfied or highly satisfied with the experience.

Think about that! I dropped out AND I loved it. That’s what people were saying.

This was a pivotal moment. It became clear that people weren’t taking MOOCs to earn credit or a credential. They were taking them out of curiosity and genuine interest. It didn’t matter that they weren’t completing courses because that was never their goal!

Imagine asking someone who bought a magazine: “Did you read the entire magazine?” Of course not. That’s not why we buy a magazine. We read an article or two and look at the pictures. And just as magazines are not books, MOOCs are not traditional college courses. The motivations are different.

It also became apparent that I wasn’t framing the idea in the right context.

Informal online learning is different from academic learning and the satisfaction derived from each needs to be measured differently too. If you’re a professor at Stanford University, an 8% completion rate is quite undesirable.

But if you’re a brand marketer with 8% consumer engagement with your content for weeks at a time? Pop the champagne.


Step 3: Assemble the Core Team and Build the MVP

By the end of 2013, we knew we were on to something and it was time to start moving forward in earnest. So we started assembling a core team at The Big Know.

By early 2014, we were able to recruit several top experts from the world of online education and together we began building a business plan and platform that we considered the Minimum Viable Product….


Next week in part II of “Why We Built The Big Know” we’ll examine our initial iterations, landing on a revenue-model, and launching The Big Know.

Don Smithmier

A stirred—not shaken—cocktail of cool calculation and wild creativity, Don is the high-beam examination of all things we create, build and release to the world, keeping us on-task, on-budget and all of our work on-point. He’s also a freakishly fine musician, as well as the spark that ignited an online education revolution.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Fun to see the process Don. I had a recent experience with online coursework and had a similar report. We built an online course (in the handmade, crafting, sewing arena) and had a decent signup. We decided to put a dollar amount on the course, but kept it pretty reasonable to reach a broad audience. The thought was that putting some $$$ on the table would encourage people to keep up with the course work.
    The surprising piece was that we had pretty meager participation. It was eye opening as we thought people would be more compelled to participate after spending money on the product.
    I think your magazine analogy is solid here. People picked and chose what they wanted to participate in.
    After the experience we have decided to try something different going forward. For some people just making the sale is the goal. But when your mission is to really teach and help people, than the fact that they paid but didn’t participate isn’t a win. It was definitely an excellent learning experience and something that will shape our process going forward.
    I am looking forward to following the Big Know. keep us updated!

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